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Diversity and Community in Higher Education

May 5, 2010

It was a Sunday evening early in August years ago. Athletes and student leaders moved in the day before, and one had just arrived unexpectedly. I received a phone call from campus safety and headed to the college.

I met Sam for the first time. He had just arrived after a long flight from Cameroon. He was hungry. So off we went to his first American restaurant. Never having met before, each from a different culture and with different perspectives, we spent about two hours getting to know one another over dinner.

About a week later, after he got settled on campus and with the soccer team, my family and I had the fun experience of going to Disneyland with him. What a joy it was watching him take it all in.

I’ll never forget Sam being mesmerized by The Lion King parade. Now that was something. Homesick for Africa, Sam was finding joy in the sights and sounds of that parade. He had never seen anything like it. Neither had I.

College life has always been a multicultural experience for me. As a professor, I had an ethnically diverse group of students, and a few from other countries like India, Yugoslavia (it was the 1980s), and Japan. As an undergraduate student, I had classmates from Germany, Iran, Japan, Canada, Samoa, etc., along with friends of ethnicity not my own, and from different geographic regions in the United States. My closest friends in college were quite different from me in background, ethnicity and lifestyle.

Then it happened. After suggesting to a friend of mine who is Hispanic that he should ask out a beautiful Hispanic student on campus, I fell for her instead. She became the love of my life, and my world expanded further. Not everyone understood. But we worked it out and attitudes came around. Our wedding was filled with joy as our diverse wedding party and our families from different cultures celebrated our marriage.

Our family grew to four with a son and a daughter, both now university grads. Our world is indeed diverse. My wife and I have been involved in multicultural education, she in highly diverse public elementary and middle schools (administrator), and I in higher education (Hispanic Serving Institution initiative).

Looking back, I am grateful for the positive multicultural experiences I had as an undergraduate in an academic community that widened my perspectives, helped shape my worldview, and opened up a new life for me.

Such is the positive power of diversity in higher education.

So you see my frame of reference as I contemplate what is happening in Arizona right now with its new immigration law. When I first heard of it, I couldn’t help but think what a shockwave it must be to the college and university communities throughout the state. Then I read this from an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which talks about how Arizona universities are dealing with news of the new law:

“In a statement emailed to the campus community, Robert N. Shelton, president of the University of Arizona, said he has “total confidence” that the campus police will follow a provision in the law that says individuals cannot be stopped solely on the basis of race.”

It’s quite a statement. One that will both calm the U of A community and reinforce grave concerns. It infers an understanding between the president and his chief of police behind the scenes that campus police will keep any personal prejudices in check.

When I read the paragraph, the film Schindler’s List came to mind (film references frequently come to my mind). It eerily reminded me of the scene near the end of the film when Schindler reopens his company and warns the German soldiers about mistreating his Jewish employees. In the film and at the university, boundaries need to be clear for the protection of the community.

The immediate concern on campuses is how will campus police respond to the new law that requires them to seek confirmation of immigrant status once they respond to a violation of the law, be it a traffic violation or something more serious.

The concern is real. Will their Latino students be at risk for racial profiling?

But it’s more than just profiling. Legal immigrants must now carry visa documentation with them at all times or risk being held for deportation. Will some students leave campus to run an errand never to return? And what if a U.S. citizen leaves campus without his or her I.D.?

Furthermore, what about Latino students who have illegal immigrant parents? What if they come on campus? Could it be that parents will be arrested on campus and be turned over to the INS for deportation?

Politics aside, this is very much a human issue for Arizona colleges and universities because they are academic communities.

Colleges and universities work hard at fostering a supportive diverse community by integrating multicultural perspectives campus wide. Diversity isn’t relegated to a few courses and student affairs policies. Institutions focus on access (students and faculty), curriculum and scholarship, institutional leadership, campus climate, and retention.

But these are only the parts of diversity in higher education. What holds it all together and makes it a gestalt experience for students, faculty, staff and administration is community.

In my last post, I wrote about the UCLA campaign, UCLA. Here. Now., in which UCLA uses a tagline that communicates their brand culture:

Nobody at UCLA keeps score on who you are, they just want to see what you do.

In a sense, it should be a tagline for all colleges and universities, including those in Arizona.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jerry Hardy permalink
    May 6, 2010 10:06 AM

    Great article. Good insights.

  2. Rick Hardy permalink
    May 6, 2010 10:11 AM

    Thanks, Jerry!

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